Judgement Call

Extended version originally published in Jane’s Police Review, July 1, 2005

Carrying an MP5 submachine gun and a Block self-loading pistol, the officer bursts into the darkened room, scanning the environment through the sight of his raised gun. Smoke drifts across his line of sight and from somewhere heavy metal music blares from a radio. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, a number of silhouettes emerge from the shadows.

The mental calculations are lightning quick: ‘handgun = hostile’, shot to the chest; ‘no weapon = innocent’, no shot. But in amongst these lightning quick calculations, sometimes things can go awry.

Ask an authorised firearms officer what their job is like and many will tell you that it is 95% boredom and 5% exhilaration. That 5% is fast-moving, dangerous and demanding, calling for excellent judgement, supreme control and rapid reactions. The responsibility of the officer is to identify the threat and, having done so, to determine the most appropriate course of action to neutralise that threat -decisions which often must be made in a split second time frame.

In order to make such rapid judgements about the level of threat posed by a person, mental shortcuts are used. Do they have a weapon? Are they behaving in an aggressive manner? Do they look threatening? To answer this final question we rely on our knowledge of the world and what experience has taught us about the people in it. We rely on stereotypes.

What is a stereotype? 

Stereotyping is essentially the process of placing a person into a category based on some easily and quickly identifiable characteristic (for example, age, sex or ethnicity) and then attributing to them qualities believed to be typical of members of that category.

So if you saw a woman in her 70s  pulling a shopping cart, you may categorise her as a grandmother. A stocky young man with a shaven head and tattoos may be categorised as a thug. A smartly dressed woman wearing glasses may be classed as an intellectual. We take those aspects of an individual that are readily available to us – most often their appearance – and we fit them into the most appropriate social group. We then assume that the characteristics that we believe to be true about that group are also true for this individual. Therefore, we might believe that the lady in her 70s will be kidnly (because that is what grandmothers are supposed to be), that the young man will be aggressive and that the smartly dressed woman will be intelligent.

Mental shortcuts

We are particularly likely to make use of mental shortcuts, such as stereotypes, when we are in highly demanding situations that require a lot of mental energy – for example in responding to a firearms threat.

As I mentioned earlier, stereotypes are essentially mental shortcuts allowing us to assess a situation rapidly with the minimum expenditure of cognitive energy. We simply do not have time to perform a full-scale systematic analysis of every person we meet, and so stereotypes provide us with a basic understanding from which to work. However, they may also lead us to assume more than is actually accurate about people we encounter.

Are grandmothers always kindly? As documented by Ann Magma in her book Female Terror (2003), in 1993, 64 year old Dorothy Puentes – your archetypal grandmother – was found guilty of multiple murders and sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison. She come to the attention of the police while running a respectable care home Sacramento, California in the mid 1980s. She ostensibly took care of people who could not take care of themselves. Suspicions were raised when one of her clients disappeared. Investigations revealed 7 bodies (some dismembered and all drugged prior to their deaths) buried on her property.

This means that in fast-moving situations the primary threat will often be identified as the person who ‘looks’ the most threatening. The biggest problem with this stereotypical processing, however, is the effect it has on reaction times. Evidence suggests that we will be faster at recognising the presence of a weapon when it is held by a stereotype-consistent target (for example, someone who looks like a thug) than when it is held by a stereotype-inconsistent target (such as a priest). It has also been reported that stereotype consistent targets produce greater firing speed and accuracy.

Why is this? It is because when we see something we do not expect, our brain takes longer to process it, hence we are slower to react.

The 1991 study by Professor William Doerner and Dr Tai-ping Ho of Florida State University Shoot- Don’t shoot (published in the Journal of Crime and Justice) found in simulated field conditions that firearms officers shooting behaviours where the perpetrator was female rather than male was more likely to result in officer death.

Stereotypical expectations of women (even female offenders) tend to hold that they pose a smaller threat to physical safety than do men. This may be associated with their size, physical strength or simply the roles that women traditionally fill within society. Home Office statistics report that only 19% of the 1.6 million known offenders in England and Wales were female, thus further enhancing the expectancies of the firearms officer that any perpetrator they are called to deal with will be male.

Latest tactics

So how do we deal with this? It is imperative that training environments become more varied and flexible, presenting officers with targets that do not meet their traditional stereotype of what a bad guy will look like. In the case of responding to a suicide bomber style attack, chances are that they will not even be overtly armed, thus adding another layer of difficulty to the role of responding officers. They should be encouraged to tackle unusual situations in order to keep their response flexible and avoid the pitfalls of excessive conditioning.

Dr Emma Kavanagh is a consultant providing training to police firearms units, hostage negotiators and other specialist police teams in the UK.